The quiet alleyway that housed my bedroom in Shinjuku had more vending machines then it had corners to put them on. It was one of those quirks that could only occur in Japan. Another quirk was how they listed the room sizes online by tatami mats. What size was a tatami mat? I had no idea what a room that was "6 tatami mats" in size would look like. Would three suitcases of clothes fit in 6 tatami mats? I didn't have that cultural reference but I checked out the room anyway. It was big enough for a bed, desk, and couch as well as all my clothes, I spent 3 months in that room as birds chirped and rain fell, I couldn't believe so much time had passed. As I was packing up to leave I grabbed my red travel journal and flipped to the first entry after I landed. Two questions jumped off the page "What am I going to find in Japan?" and "What kind of person would I be upon leaving?" I knew even then that coming to Japan was more than just eating ramen and exploring cultural sites and partying, it was also about exploring who I was and what I could become.
While I was packing Sejan went on a morning walk around my neighborhood. Would Sejan notice the multitude of vending machines or the turtle mural above the car wash? Some details of the world only reveal themselves after you walk the same road multiple times. Like how different the street smells when the roasted sweet potatoes are outside the supermarket in the evenings. These are details the casual observer would ignore, details that aren't adventurous or instagrammable. But what I didn't realize until I arrived was that the pedestrian and average plays a big part in long-term travel.
Exploring bamboo forests, getting lost in Yoyogi park, discovering cool thrift stores stand tall in the imagination but they make up such a small part of long-term travel. In truth, the "everyday reality" of travel is much more mundane but it is in those moments when you have to face yourself and whatever baggage you're carrying. For me, it was the feelings of loneliness and insecurity. I interrogated the mythologies I tell myself: Am I really outgoing? Am I really a good photographer? Can I really travel the world by myself? With nothing to distract me, I had to face them head-on. No more running away. I was afraid that If I answered them my insecurities would be true and I would have to change what I dreamed about. But when I looked back at what I had accomplished I realized I had so much power and strength. I pushed through and created art with local artists that inspired me. I fostered a community of friends that I could rely on for strength and support. I survived the sadness, the insecurity, the days I didn't want to leave my room to have an amazing time. Turns out that by running away from these questions I was denying myself the truth of how amazing and talented I was.
The night before I left Tokyo I sat surrounded by friends both new and old at the bar of a tiny ramen restaurant in Shibuya. I loved ramen before I came but I developed a whole new appreciation for the art form after slurping countless bowls. I had left 3 months prior unsure of what would become of me. And in some ways, I'm still unsure. What I did foster was a deeper connection with my strengths and weaknesses. Turns out life is like making a bowl of ramen it's going to take a lifetime of repetition to make the perfect bowl. Japan was the hardest country to start my travels- the equivalent of skiing down a black diamond your first time on the slopes. As much as I hoped, knowing that didn't make it any easier. I learned to be kind to myself especially since Japan was just the first stop of many. It wasn't going to be perfect first time on the mountain. I can't let my expectations get in the way of my results. My travels around the world will be just as much about creating art and meeting new people as it is about healing.
So Sayonara Japan, thank you for giving me space to fail and grow and cry and laugh and discover. Subscribe below so you never miss an addition to the Archive.